Why Say “Theistic” Evolution? Is There Any Other Kind?

Gaze out at the entire world. For all that is around you, all that you cannot see with your eyes, all that happened before, all that is to come, thank God for creating it—theistic EVERYTHING.

(photo: Register Files)

This is a much needed dialogue restarting. First, I wrote a short essay titled, “Theistic Evolution is Redundant.” John Farrell, a science contributor at Forbes, wrote a piece, “It’s Time To Retire ‘Theistic Evolution,’” citing me and Kenneth Miller, the biologist who drove this discussion over a decade ago when public schools tried to mandate teaching intelligent design. William Lane Craig responded to Farrell’s article in a recent podcast, “Is It Time to Retire Theistic Evolution?” Craig says the phrase, and all such like it, are useful. They should not be the end of discussions, but the starting point for them.

My reason for declaring “theistic evolution” superfluous precedes any discussion of chemical mechanism. This is not so much about the scientific arguments as it is about this fundamental claim: if you pray the Creed and believe God created everything, then you never, ever need to put God-adjectives in front of science terms. It is misleading. Science is the study of the material realm of creation. Some might say it good to stress that you believe God guided evolution, but I say no, it is actually detrimental. Using the term “theistic” in front of any term gives the impression that believers may declare some things in creation as created and some things as not, which smacks of irrationality and heresy.

Imagine eating dinner that way. The husband says, “Honey, pass me the theistic potatoes.”

His wife says, “Okay, would you like some butter in them? It’s natural, you know. My, these God-made Porterhouse cuts that you grilled are awesome. I think I’ll have a sip of Divine Cabernet, the handiwork of men but a gift from God nonetheless.”

“Oh dear, you are so right. I will not have that evil atheistic natural butter. Would my heaven-sent Honey like some holy theistic potatoes too, also given straight to us by God?”

Would not it be far less absurd, and consistent with a sane, confident, and pervasive faith to say a blessing of thanks to God for all of the food before you eat?

People use the term “theistic” in front of “evolution” to differentiate it from “naturalism,” but I do not understand why anyone—especially a Christian—fears natural explanations. Nature is creation. God created nature, and there is nothing in conflict with our faith to say that organisms have evolved naturally. Nor does anyone need to call miracles to the rescue to explain how the ~1.3 million species defined today (not even close to all of them) were created by God.

Craig gets it. He says, “I think she makes a good point. She is saying, You believe in a certain evolutionary account of biological complexity, and it doesn't add anything to that to say that you are also a theist.” (I would not say “believe in” though.)

It is Farrell and Miller that Craig seems to disagree with, particularly regarding Miller’s quote in Farrell’s piece. There is some confusion here. (Bear with me.) Farrell quotes Miller in the article at Forbes: “To me, and in the minds of most people who use the term, it implies that a god had to pre-ordain the outcome of the evolutionary process or at the very least guide it along to produce the world of today, including human beings his chosen creatures. I don’t believe that at all. Evolution is a fully-independent natural process driven by chance and necessity.”

The problematic line is, “I don’t believe that at all.” Craig interprets this, understandably so, to mean that Miller thinks God plays no role in evolution. Hence, Craig concludes that we do need the term “theistic evolution” to differentiate between the Millers and Trasancoses. Craig says the term is not a scientific term, but a metaphysical term of belief, “It is almost like he [Miller] is saying, God is there, but God didn't have anything to do with evolution.

If this interpretation is correct however, and I do not think it is nor do I think Farrell ever thought it was, then Miller now believes something opposite of what he has said over the last decade. For example, on the Miller & Levine Biology (textbook) website, an essay states Miller’s basic position: “Like many other scientists who hold the Catholic faith, I see the Creator's plan and purpose fulfilled in our universe. I see a planet bursting with evolutionary possibilities, a continuing creation in which the Divine providence is manifest in every living thing. I see a science that tells us there is indeed a design to life. And the name of that design is evolution.” Clearly Miller does not deny God’s providence.

The misunderstanding is, I suspect, about miracles. Miller probably interprets a phrase such as God “guided evolution along the way” to mean that people think God intervened in nature, working miracle after miracle to bring about the diversity of life, as the intelligent design community argues. Miller rejects these arguments. So does Farrell. So do I on both theological and scientific grounds.

A theologian’s job is to research questions grounded in Divine Revelation and Sacred Tradition. Theologians start with what God has revealed and think from there, extending human knowledge and understanding. To ask how many times God worked miracles to bring about the diversity of life is to ask an unanswerable question unrooted in revelation. We cannot know. Like I said, who says there had to be any miracles? Why doubt that God could have created matter to change the way He intended?

The scientific arguments for miracles (in this context) usually involve statistics. The proponents argue that some evolutionary steps are statistically impossible, but this is merely to admit that science has not discovered all the answers. Suffice it to say that the fact you are reading this essay can also be shown to be statistically impossible by the same methods if the events leading up to this moment are considered in isolation of other contributing events over the course of your life. Besides, if we call the emergence of new traits “miracles,” then we are forced to call a regularly occurring physical process a miracle, which is most certainly not the definition of miracle.

But lots of people form these opinions anyway. As Craig notes, there is a “bewildering variety” of metaphysical stories about how God planned evolution. And that’s the snag: theological reasoning should not start from a personal belief. Indeed, person-centered thinking instead of God-centered thinking is responsible for a great many divides in Church history.

Craig says we need to hear out those arguments. A “progressive creationist” is someone who believes God intervenes miraculously to cause evolution to “progress,” which seems to fit the definition Craig thinks Miller accepts of “theistic evolution.” Craig also points out that the staff at BioLogos, a group active in the evolution and religion discussion, accepts this idea but with a new label called “evolutionary creationism.” He also points out that there are yet other “intelligent design” opinions such as those of Michael Behe and Michael Denton which may differ from the “old earth creationism” of Hugh Ross, which drastically varies from the “young earth creationism” of Ken Ham. At this rate, there will be as many theo-names for evolution as there are Protestant denominations.

But can we all pause for a moment, step back, and ask a deeper question? What purpose do these arguments serve? How are these supernaturally-labeled conjectures helping any of us toward the truth? If a scholar like William Lane Craig is misled by a single quote from a long-time author like Kenneth Miller, then the misunderstanding is itself a case in point: “theistic evolution” and all of its variants amounts to busywork. It is confusing. It divides us. It distracts from the fundamental and simplest truth that God created everything.

To repeat, nature is creation. Faith is an all-or-none proposition. You cannot say that you have faith that God created heaven and earth and at the same time question whether he created matter capable of the physical changes we routinely observe in our world. That is like saying you believe in God on Sunday, but not on Monday, or only on Wednesdays and Fridays, or only before noon, or whatever. I am stating the obvious, and what I find most bewildering is that in all these complicated debates so few people will simply assert the plain truth. Kudos to John Farrell at Forbes for moving the conversation forward. I would hate to see the conversation pulled back into more blur of speculation. To all the ones trying to do that:

Please stop it.

The clarity is easy. Gaze out at the entire world. For all that is around you, all that you cannot see with your eyes, all that happened before, all that is to come, thank God for creating it—theistic EVERYTHING. Then, and only then, if you are so inclined, roll up your sleeves and see what the evolutionary biologists (and all other scientists) have to say, in confidence and without fear.

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